Our series of films focusing on racism concludes with “Dear White People,” released in 2014. Evan and I liked a number of things about it. First, in the tradition of Spike Lee, director Justin Simien managed to craft a story that does not rely on any “voice of wisdom” to guide the main characters. Everyone is flawed or blind in some big or small way. Evan also enjoyed main character Sam’s “Rebirth of a Nation” student film project. Our discussion of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “classic” was not time wasted.
My main difficulty in allowing “Dear White People” to draw me into its tangled web of racially tinged drama was its reliance on dialogue for character development. The characters are defined much more by what they say to each other than by anything they actually do. With long scenes and few set changes, it might even have made a better stage play.
There is a flip side to this: “Dear White People,” moreso even than “Crash,” is a movie of the 21st century, shining the spotlight on a form of racism more pertinent to the day-to-day lives of its modern audience than riots, murders, or Jim Crow laws. The racism most carefully under examination today has less to do with these, and more to do with the remarks, sometimes well-meaning but thoughtless, sometimes mean-spirited but revealing, that people of different races direct towards one another in misguided efforts to communicate and understand. “Dear White People” is about a racist power dynamic, but one that manifests in language rather than through actions, making it slippery and harder to study. It’s no surprise, then, that this movie is more about how our words, not just our deeds, illuminate who we are.
“Dear White People,” along with “School Daze” and “Higher Learning,” was our third campus film. The emphasis on snappy dialogue gave this movie a tone that more closer resembles “School Daze,” but each of the three movies ends with an explosive event of some kind- a rape, a killing, and an all-out brawl. These events close the narrative, and the denouement that follows each ultimately defines the tone of the respective movie. “School Daze” ends with some sense of hope, as Laurence Fishburne looks into the camera, begging the viewer to “wake up!”. “Higher Learning” ends on a decidedly more sour and pessimistic note: the racism-fueled murder seems likelier to create rifts than bonds. “Dear White People” ends with a scene that can only be described as comically cynical. The clash that ended a “Release Your Inner Negro” themed party the night before has finally attracted the attention of a network television producer. The black dean of students is mid-sentence rejecting the producer’s offer to shoot a reality-TV series on their campus, when the white university president interrupts him to ask the producer “How much money are we talking about?”. It seems no matter what efforts the students might make to change their world, this is the status quo with which such efforts meet their inevitable conclusion. Conflict sells, and the house always wins.
Next: “Winter’s Bone” (2010) Dir. Debra Granik